N Rubashov & G Dudeney on the Digital Revolution and the Challenge for Education
We have been re-reading Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, and on page 136 the central character, Rubashov, makes some interesting remarks about the implications of technological development for education. A stark contrast immediately came to mind between this perception of the problems posed by technological change and the very different perception voiced by the edtech discourse that trumpets the virtues of the digital revolution. In this post we simply want to sketch that contrast.
Because Rubashov is a particular (if fictional) individual, we want an individual representative of the edtech community with which to contrast his position. We have chosen Gavin Dudeney, an edtech edupreneur.
We begin with a question.
What challenges does the so-called “digital revolution” pose for education?
The main challenge perceived by the edtechers is simply that of getting both teachers and students up to speed with the new tools. This is evident in Dudeney’s British Council talk on digital literacy, where the primary concern is with the ability of teachers and students to use the high-tech kit.
There is a secondary challenge that Dudeney mentions. It is not enough for children to know how to use the new tools. They must develop the habit of giving priority to the digital whenever there is the option of doing so. There is a commandment here, which Dudeney avoids spelling out, but is nevertheless plain to see: If something can be done with the new tech, then it must be done with it. Through long habituation, beginning at the youngest possible age, that principle must become second nature for the learner. To test whether someone is digitally literate, Dudeney makes clear, would not involve giving them MCQs relating to the technicalities of the internet, rather it would involve asking them, for instance, what they touch first when they wake up. If they touch their iTotem mobile device, then this is one sure sign that they are digitally literate (and can, consequently, continue safe in the knowledge that they will not be ridiculed for being out of step with History, which has now entered the New Era – an era that Dudeney dates, in suitably corporate fashion, from the (immaculate?) birth of Google).
How does this edtech approach to the question compare to that of Rubashov? Admittedly, the character of Rubashov belongs to the pre-digital age, and the words we will quote below refer to the height of the industrial revolution in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. However, he is talking about technological progress in general, and what he has to say applies just as well to digital technology.
As you may recall, in Darkness at Noon Nicolas Rubashov is imprisoned, accused of counter-revolutionary activities, and while he is still hopeful of being able to argue his case in court he begins to reflect upon why his aspirations for a more democratic society could not be fulfilled at that point in history. As he sees it, there is a crucial link between democracy and the level of technological development. He sees a general principle:
“A people’s capacity to govern itself democratically is proportionate to the degree of its understanding of the structure and functioning of the whole social body.”
This is immediately followed by an explanation:
“Every technical improvement adds to the complexity of the economic apparatus, causes the appearance of new factors and combinations which the masses cannot penetrate for a time. Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in their political maturity. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people’s level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government, as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization.”
He gives a number of examples:
“The discovery of the mechanical loom, for example, sets the masses back into a state of relative immaturity…
“The invention of the steam engine started a period of rapid objective progress, and, consequently, of equally rapid subjective political regression.” (136)
To highlight the contrast here, let’s stick for a moment with the example of the steam engine. If we were to take Gavin Dudeney and the other edtechers back to the early steam age, they would be giving talks at the British Council arguing that the great challenge in education is teaching people how to read the timetable, pick the best route, turn up at the right platform on time, then get off at the right station – the steam equivalent of the sort of how-to knowledge that constitutes the edtecher’s sole interest.
Rubashov knows better. The railways added a new level of complexity to the world that went way beyond the technicalities of getting on the right train and getting off at the right station. Even after becoming competent train-travellers, people faced a formidable new task: understanding this more complex world.
For Rubashov the question of understanding is not an idle one of merely academic significance, but rather one of huge political significance for someone who believes in democracy, since people cannot hope to govern their world responsibly if they cannot understand it. What is disturbing about the edtech approach to technology is its blindness to this need for people to understand the complexity of the world they live in, with the outrageous implication that everything is fine as long as everyone is tapping away at touch screens that carry the logo of their favourite brand.
With the “digital revolution” the world takes a step up to an even higher level of complexity. The more important forms of complexity here are not the bewildering mechanics of the core and the periphery of the internet. Of more importance for those of us still concerned about political maturity is the complexity of the effects of that technology on diverse aspects of our social world: new forms of financial trading, new forms of surveillance, new distributions of power, new patterns of family life, new perceptions of time and space, new perceptions of ourselves and our world, and so on, and so on. Although the STEM-loving edtechers will tend to emphasize the technical know-how involved in things like coding and app-designing, the greater challenge in education is helping people understand the changed social and psychological worlds that live through us. We need to help students stand back from those worlds, scrutinise them, see them from new perspectives and begin to understand them, as opposed to keeping the students immersed in something whose deeper structure they are unaware of and whose history they are unable to narrate.
Caveat: To follow Rubashov here and agree that this is the greater challenge in education, we need to care about a more vital democracy and the political maturity required for it. Unfortunately this care doesn’t seem to be shared by many of those who are banging the drums for the Digital Revolution. Just have a look at the frequency with which the relevant hastags are used on Twitter. The use of the #edtech hashtag peaks now at over 300 tweets per hour. Tweets using #eddemocracy average about two or three per year.